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Tender vs Design & Build: Which Is Best For Me?

Updated: Feb 5

Office Fit Out Process

If you’re in the process of planning your office fit out, one of your key decisions will be the process you use. You have two main options: tender (or traditional) and design & build. This is a big decision that will impact the quality of your new office, as well as the investment of time and money required to deliver it.


At this point, you’re probably wondering which is best. Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends”. Both office fit out procurement models have their advantages and disadvantages. Which is best for you will depend on the constraints and priorities of your project.


Every week, we speak to companies planning office fit outs, and this topic comes up very regularly. Our recommendation depends on their unique circumstances. However, there are several generic factors and indicators, which we’ll walk you through today.


So that you know everything you need to know to feel comfortable making your decision, we’ll explain exactly what both models are, along with their respective advantages and disadvantages. We’ll then give several example scenarios to help you decide which is best for you. Let’s get started!


What is a Tender in Office Fit Out?

The tender (or traditional) procurement route remains the most common method for all construction works. It is still popular for office fit outs, especially for larger contracts.


In this model, the client first appoints a consultant. This is either an interior architect, an interior design practice, or a project management consultancy. They then develop the design package and prepare tender documentation. This includes drawings, scopes of works and project programmes. Relevant fit out or construction companies are then invited to submit tenders for the project, usually on a single-stage basis. In some cases, secondary contractors are invited to tender alongside the main contractor. This is often for specialist packages such as IT and furniture.


The project is then awarded to the most suitable contractor. In some cases, the architect or consultant will continue to manage the project during the delivery phase, and the fit-out firm will report to them. The fit out company is purely responsible for the delivery, not the design. This means they have little autonomy to adapt to changing client requirements.


Tender Advantages

The key advantage of the tender model for office fit outs is the certainty that it provides. The design is finalised according to client requirements before the contractors are involved. This means there is much more clarity around what is required and what it is likely to cost.


Another popular benefit of the tender model is the ease of comparison. Unlike D&B, the contractors are all quoting on exactly the same project. Consultants can assess potential fit out companies on an “apples for apples” basis. This includes cost, expertise, track record, customer care, and any other relevant criteria.


Working with one independent architect or designer to develop a design that matches your brief will be much simpler than working with multiple fit-out companies. They will all have different skill sets and design approaches, so you will get very different designs. This will also prevent a lot of duplication. You can spend more time on one design, to make sure it is right.


Tender Disadvantages

While great in theory, the tender model has several serious weaknesses. This is especially true in office fit outs, which are often one-off projects. Working with an architect, designer, or consultant can be a large up-front investment before you have any accurate understanding of the total project costs. If the project becomes unviable, you have invested a lot of time, money, and effort in the design for no reward.


Tender packages are a lot less flexible than design & build projects, which causes several issues. Fit out companies have little or no specification flexibility, which increases costs. Consultants have no experience in direct project delivery, so their plans and programmes are often impractical or inefficient. As the fit-out companies have no input on the design, they are unable to help improve this.


The tender process is also very time-consuming. As you are splitting the project into two main parts, you have two key rounds of procurement to go through (the consultant and then the contractor). This is time-consuming. For fit out companies, tenders are more difficult to quote, as there is often a lot of bureaucracy to complete a tender. This makes the pre-contract phase much longer than during the D&B model. Adding another layer of management with an architect or consultant makes communications more difficult. It also slows decision-making down.


What is Design & Build in Office Fit Out?

As the need for speed and flexibility has increased, the design & build model has become increasingly popular. This partnership model is now prevalent in office fit outs, especially in projects below £5m.


Design & build is a procurement model whereby one contractor is appointed to design and deliver the project. The client first defines their brief, as well as a rough budget. They then reach out to several office fit out companies, who develop an initial design concept, as well as budget costs. The client then selects 1 or 2 of these companies to develop a full design and cost package. This includes drawings, detailed quotes, and a programme of works.


They then select the best fit out company for their project. Often, the deciding factor is not the cost. More important factors are the quality of the design package and the ability to deliver on the design. Once this decision has been made, the package is then finalised, and the contract is signed. The same company that designed your project will now deliver it. This means that one company has both the Principal Designer (PD) and Principal Contractor (PC) roles. To learn more about the design & build process, read this article.


Design & Build Advantages

The main advantage of the design & build model is the combination of speed and flexibility that it offers. The design, precontracts, and project delivery phases can be overlapped. This means your project is finished quicker. It also means unforeseen issues in the precontract and construction phases can be more easily rectified, as the design and precontract teams are available.


The overall project costs are nearly always lower with the design & build model. The costly design and consultancy package is removed and replaced with in-house designers that work much closer with the construction team. Design & build gives the client greater start-to-finish cost certainty. It also transfers risks such as material cost increases to the fit out company. Fit out companies can make use of the extra flexibility to value-engineer your project, further reducing costs.


As you are dealing with one main contractor, who takes care of all PD and PC responsibilities, communication becomes a lot simpler. With tender packages, you are communicating with many stakeholders: your consultant, the designer, the project manager, the fit out company, and other contractors. This can rapidly get overwhelming. With design & build, you have a single point of contact, who takes on a lot of the communication workload.


A fit out company manages the entire project, from initial design right through to snagging. This means they can take a far more holistic view of the project. They focus on delivering the whole project as successfully as they can, not just their part of the scope. This avoids prioritising one package at the expense of another.


Design & Build Disadvantages

Design & build is not a flawless model though. Its greatest benefit – flexibility – is also its greatest drawback. Fit out companies with different expertise, preferences, and cost structures will produce very different designs and costs. To decide which contractor is the best for your project, you have to compare designs, costs, and companies at the same time, which is very complex.


Some disingenuous office fit out companies will also try to exploit your reliance on them to their advantage during the project. A common issue is fit out companies not costing for their complete design package. They then include it as an additional cost during the project when you have less negotiating power. To avoid this, it’s essential you carefully look through the design, quote and contract to understand where you stand on mid-project cost increases.


Which Is Best For Me?

Choosing the procurement model for your office fit out project is a big decision. It's a decision that will have a big impact on the success of your project. Depending on your circumstances and needs, some of the advantages we’ve outlined above will be crucial, while others will be less relevant. Likewise, some of the disadvantages of both models could derail your project, while others are manageable.


To help you decide which option is best for you, below are 3 scenarios where tendering is the better option and 3 scenarios where design & build is more suitable. If you identify with the statements from both tender and D&B, then you will need to prioritise.


The tender model is best for you if:

- You want the best possible price on a design you are happy with, rather than the best possible design at a price you are happy with.

- You prefer to work with one designer to create your project design, rather than getting a variety of perspectives.

- You prefer the greater degree of personal involvement and control that tender projects require.


Design & build will be better for you if:

- You need to complete your project quickly and have limited internal resources

- You are relatively flexible with your design requirements and are looking to value engineer your project.

- You are looking to minimise disruption within your business, and are comfortable delegating most decisions to an external company


Next Steps

Hopefully, you now feel better informed and prepared to make your decision on whether to use a tender or a design & build process for your office fit out. It’s important to remember that neither way is always better than the other. Both have their advantages and drawbacks, and the best option for you is down to your needs.


Once you have chosen your project process, your next step will be to choose an office fit out company. For more information on this, read How to Choose the Best Office Fit Out Company For Your Project. It explains the 5 key criteria that you need to consider when choosing a fit out company.


Want to get an idea of what your project might cost? Download our comprehensive office fit out costs guide. While every project is different, we’ve analysed a wide range of office fit outs. This gives you a guide on what you may need in your workspace, and what you can expect to spend to get it. ​This guide includes office fit out costs per square foot, factors that affect the cost, and how the specification will affect the cost.



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